Saturday, April 29, 2017

Finding the right song can open the door to connection

This week I had several good experiences in singing with my nursing home groups. It's amazing how one song can open up a door that was not there before.  For instance, there is one elderly woman at one of the nursing homes who used to yell out things when I played my guitar (instrumental).  I play my "Sundowning Serenade" to help calm the dementia residents there. Most of them relax or doze off while listening. Ms. Martha would say things like, "That's enough of that!", "How much longer do we have to listen to this crap?!" and so on. Because she is ill, I know not to take this personally. Even so, it's not pleasant to have that happen. The other night though, something cool happened.  I went through my repertoire and tried to think of a song Martha would know and like. I found Elvis Presley's song, "Can't Help Falling in Love." Well, what do you know?! As soon as I started playing it, Martha started to sing along! In the two years or so I've known her, she has never done this.  Guess what I will play for her from now on? That was a good feeling to find something she liked.

Yesterday I was over at another nursing home and at one point a man there named Johnny said he wanted to share something. Johnny is someone I have known now for about ten years. He uses a wheelchair and he is pretty severely disabled.  However, he has recently had some positive changes and healing take place. He told the group that he can now use his hands and move his feet and sit up straight and all sorts of other things he was never able to do before in his whole life. As he revealed another example to us, he would start to cry.  Everyone was so moved by his sharing with us. One of the ladies said, "Bless you." and knowing he is a man of faith, I asked him if he'd like for us to sing, "Amazing Grace" for him. We all did sing this song and there were more tears, especially during this verse:

"Through many toils and trials and snares
I have already come
Twas grace that brought me here thus far
and Grace will lead me home. "

At another place down the road where I sing, they like to sing old songs like, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "I Saw the Light," "Do Lord." All of these people I see have such interesting stories to tell. We often talk in between songs and tell of a time we used to sing a given song.

Singing with others is so much more than singing. Music is the bridge that opens the door inside the window to their heart.  How rich I feel to know these people who inspire me and enrich my lives.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Concert to Remember

One of my favorite events of the year is the annual VSA Charlottesville/Albemarle concert. Formerly, "very special arts," VSA is part of Therapeutic Parks & Recreation department which provides arts activities for people with disabilities. This is my 9th year doing musical activities with groups in VSA.

This year I really enjoyed accompanying a group of 15 students singing, "Let it Go" from the musical Frozen. It was a lot of fun rehearsing this over the past month because they were all so excited about this song. In the concert, we were last in the line up and which was an energetic and empowering way to end our yearly concert. Doing this Disney song on solo guitar was a challenge for me.  As you know from the song, it is an orchestrated song with several instruments and it was hard to get the same dynamics on my guitar but I think it worked out well.

I also sang a song called, "Blue Wings" which is a poem written by George Eliot. She is the writer from the Victorian era who is most known for her novel, "Middlemarch." Not many know that she also wrote poetry. Last year I set 6 of her poems to music and "Blue Wings" was one of my favorites. I hope to do a recording of these and video this summer. Stay tuned!!

Everyone did so well in the concert. One of my favorite performances of the song, "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. It was sung by my friend Jessica in her beautiful voice while Amanda interpreted in ASL (American sign language). Wow! That was powerful.

We also had hand bell choirs, African drumming with Whit, a John Denver song by Bill, a classic rock song by Chris.. it was truly a wonderful community effort. This happened a few days ago and I am still jazzed up about it.

The picture above is a screen shot taken from the TV news clip Channel 29 did about the concert. They were there through the whole concert and I was on for a few seconds. Thanks again to all who came out to support us on our special day.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Vitamins for the heart and soul


I love my work playing therapeutic music for hospital patients in ICU. The other day I had an interesting experience.  When I play for ICU patients, I mostly improvise simple melodies with simple chord progressions. If you think of the music being like a food that feeds the heart and soul, it needs to be very easy to digest for someone who is very ill.

The other day I was playing for a man who was hooked up to life support and barely conscious. I know that he could hear me because his heart rate would change anytime I tried to play in a musical key other than C.  That is something I do when I play for critically ill people, I look for their comfort zone and try to stay in that place while they lock into the slow rhythms and peaceful melodies.

I was playing parts of a piece I composed for my mother this past winter that has some major 7th chords. Stevie Wonder uses lots of major 7th chords, by the way. The song, "You Are the Sunshine of my Life" opens with a CMaj7 add 9 chord in the introduction. If you just listen to that chord, there is something kind of magical about it. It is soothing and uplifting and it sounds like love. If you had to find a chord that represented love, this one would be a good choice.

Anyway, I was improvising with these kind of chords for this patient and playing very slow, arpeggios and I was envisioning a peaceful pastoral scene in my mind's eye to bring him to. When at times I moved to change into a song in another key (of say G or D), his heart rate immediately went up. Hm. Ok, I went back to the key of C. This is a key that is found in a lot of country and pop music. It's a pretty comforting and familiar sound, one that would feel like "home." In playing for him for nearly 30 minutes, I saw how comforting it was for me to stay within a small confines and think up new melodic motifs and come back to other ones used before to help him focus.

So here's some homework for you.  As you go about your week and you are listening to music, be aware of what musical key you seem to really respond to. Just look up the song on google  with the word "chords" and you'll find the lyrics and chords. See if your favorite songs are similar and use the same chords. Do you have a favorite key? I am partial to the key of E and one of my favorite chords is F#minor.   How about you?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Our Most Precious Heritage

 We are living in times in our country faces fear of funding being cut for the arts and humanities.  When funds are being used instead to build walls and military forces.  In writing to my congressman and President to ask to continue to fund NEA and NEH and public broadcasting, I came upon this quote:

"Art is a nation's most precious heritage, For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish."-- Lyndon Johnson on the National Endowment of the Arts.

This past week was VSA Arts's 17th Annual Art show opening which is one of my favorite events of the year. VSA Arts is a non profit that promotes and develops opportunities for art and creative expression for persons with disabilities. I work with groups doing music and we are currently working on the program for the VSA Concert to be held at Carver Recreation Center in Charlottesville Wed. April 19th at 10:00am. (please come!)

I so much believe in the power of music and art and all forms of creativity. I loved playing my guitar at the VSA art opening and Chris Carter also played his music for the people at the art show too.

You can see some great pictures by Norm Carter at this link of some of the artists and artwork which will be on display (and for sale) at Carver Recreation center through August 2017. The picture above was taken of me at the art opening by Norm.


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Musical moments


As February draws to a close, I am struck by how lucky I am to share music with so many people in varied circumstances. Last week I had one of the most deeply moving experiences playing music for patients at the hospital.  When arriving on the ICU unit, I was asked to play for a woman who had been taken off life support. She had no family or anyone with her. I went to her room and played for her as she lay dying.  I wanted to fill the room with beauty and hope and chose some familiar pieces like, "The Water is Wide" and  "Simple Gifts."  I also played some of my own compositions and did some improvising. I worked to match her deep breathing patterns to support her journey to the next world. Sometimes her breath would slow to a point where I thought she left us but then she'd come back and I'd start a new song on my guitar. I thought of what it would be like to leave this world with me and others a stranger to her as her witness. I wondered what her life had been like, who she was and hoped for her peace.

After that, I was sent to a room of a patient who played the guitar. He was sitting up in a chair which meant I could play more uptempo pieces (to help circulation and energy).  He requested, "Amazing Grace," and "Wayfaring Stranger." After that, I started to play, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and he sang along and asked his friend in the room to video tape us.   I could see the song meant a lot to him and we sat and talked about music and life in between our songs. I plan to look in on him again this week.

Other gigs were singing with groups at nursing homes. Above in the picture you see a poster they had in one facility.  Singing with others is a joy too. Everyone comes with different stories and backgrounds and we all have memories associated with a given song.

With March coming, I got out my Irish repertoire and have been practicing for St. Patrick's Day. Here's a jig I wrote myself but it's so recent that it doesn't have a name yet but I do hope you enjoy it!

Happy Spring (soon!!)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Party of one


The other day I was to play for a nursing home group but only one resident showed up. It turned out the activities director was out of town and failed to inform the community.   When I arrived Ms. Joanne (not her real name) was sitting at the front table. She was slightly slumped over and had her eyes closed as if she was in deep thought about something. She wore a headband laced with pink silk flowers in her white hair.

"Looks like it's going to be just you and me today. We can have our own party." I said and got out my guitar. I brought my songbook and set it on the table between us.  "Let's sing a happy song." I suggested and we sang, "This Little Light of Mine." After that I let her decide what we would sing next. I'd prompt her by giving choices of what kind of song. "Should we sing a funny song or a serious one?" (funny she smiled) and we sang, "Oh my darlin', oh my darlin', oh my darlin Clementine...."

When we sang, "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands," we mentioned all the names of her family members and her home town in West Virginia, Charlottesville, the state of Virginia and the whole world. We just kept expanding our circle of who we sang the song to.

It was actually quite a nice time we had. I enjoyed talking in between songs and learning things about her. She would drift off into  a story about living in the mountains in West Virginia back in the day. Or she'd tell me about her granddaughter who she hoped was coming to visit her later that day.

I was struck by how much music is a connecting force in our lives. Had my class been about another subject - it may not have worked out to have just one participant in the room.  It could have been awkward since we did not know each other at all. But through songs and sharing, it didn't matter no one else was around. In fact, I was glad to get to know her.

Oh, the picture above is one I post for Valentine's Day. It is of a stump from my yard when 5 acres of forest were destroyed in order to build a housing development. The stump is what is left of my favorite tree that stood right outside my window. I was stunned when I saw it made a heart shape- the picture was taken moments after it was cut down. To me it was saying, "You can cut us down but you can't get rid of the love and the heart of the forest. "

Monday, January 30, 2017

Music of Acceptance

Hello everyone! This has been quite an interesting winter.  Something I feel fortunate about is that the work that I do brings people joy, comfort, hope and peace. Working at the hospital and playing for patients in the ICU is the work I feel so grateful to do. Last week I played for a dying loved one surrounded by family and friends. Since my mother passed away in the spring, a lot of new music has come to me that has brought me a lot of healing and comfort. It feels good to play this music for others.  I have given a lot of thought to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) and I am now in the acceptance phase. As a result, the guitar pieces that have come to me reflect the peace and acceptance I am feeling.

I have many new compositions that are not yet titled but here is one I like. It is an uplifting piece with an upbeat rhythm that speaks of moving forward with hope. Here is a link to that piece so you can listen. 

I've also been enjoying leading sing alongs with people and it is especially gratifying to see how music is such a bridge to connecting people of all backgrounds and ages.  In light of this past week with the tumultuous political climate all around us, it is nice to see that my work is about connecting and bringing hope. Singing songs like, "This Little Light of Mine," "Down by the Riverside," "I Got Rhythm,"  - from folk songs to show tunes to hymns -- we each have our own memories connected to these songs.

I published a new article, "My New Sonic Reality: In Harmony"  in Hearing Health Foundation at magazine recently. You can read it at this link. 

I've also been doing a lot of art and the picture above is my latest creation called, "Fire Lotus."

Thanks for stopping by and feel free to get in touch! blueoconnell.com